When my high school orchestra teacher found out my family owned a Japanese flower garden in Phoenix, Arizona, he made a confession: He had once snuck into those fields. He stole flowers to propose to his wife. To this day, I meet other people who share with me equally vivid memories of the farms. One friend told me: “I would drive my mom there every weekend!” Although all of the flower fields are gone now, they’re still an important part of the history of Phoenix. And of Japanese-American history in Arizona.
The Issei and Nisei—first and second generation Japanese—began farming vegetables in the Phoenix area in the 1920s. My dad, a Nisei, was born in Idaho, and came to Arizona with his parents and siblings to farm in the 1930s. But in the 1940s, during World War II, many Japanese-Americans, including my parents, were imprisoned in internment (incarceration) camps, which meant they had to abandon their farms and homes. After the war, they were released with few possessions. Some returned to Phoenix and settled near the foot of South Mountain. My father’s family, the Nakagawas, ended up a bit farther east than the spot of their 1930s farm. About six Japanese-American families were nearby.
This rocky desert soil in this area was considered undesirable for farming by most Phoenix residents, but the Nakagawas and other Japanese-American farm families were willing to undertake the back-breaking work of moving rocks, tilling, and setting up irrigation systems to make the farms productive. During this time non-U.S. citizens were prohibited from buying land—alien land laws were not ruled unconstitutional until 1952. So my grandfather, a Japanese citizen, was prevented from buying land he had helped nurture. My dad, as the oldest son and a U.S. citizen, took care of the business, taking out loans in order to lease and later purchase land, equipment, and a place to live.
The Kishiyama family, who owned the land across the street from my dad’s family, was the first to grow flowers in addition to vegetables. They had heard the climate might be propitious for the new crop. Eventually other families added flower varieties of their own. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s the flower farms were a tourist attraction, featured in Phoenix brochures and described in magazines and newspapers. They were noted for their fragrance and the surprise of color in the middle of the brown desert. If Arizona brings to mind sand and heat, the Japanese flower gardens defied this expectation.
The gardens were located on Baseline Road, which initially divided the north and south portions of the city. A 16-block stretch, the fields turned the desert into a blanket of unexpected bright fuchsia, light yellow, off-white, pale pink, and violet-lavender. In spring, driving west along Baseline Road from 48th through 32nd Street, you would pass field after field of colorful, long-stemmed flowers called stocks, kale, sweet peas the color of jelly beans, and flowering purple-gray cabbages. The faint sweet smell of the fields carried for miles. We also grew cucumbers and tomatoes, and light green summer squash covered in a soft prickly coating that made my skin itch when I helped to box them for selling.
Most of the farmers constructed tin sheds to sell what they grew, with wooden shelves to display buckets of mixed bouquets and crates of vegetables. In 1969, to keep up with the times, my dad enclosed his shed with concrete walls and large glass windows, added air conditioning and a refrigerated display case, and built a three-story pagoda tower, with stairs leading to a viewing platform. The tin shed turned into a full flower and gift shop, named “Baseline Flower Growers.” In addition to mixed bouquets of cut flowers and boxes of cucumbers, squash, and other vegetables, we also sold Arizona kitsch like salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of cactuses, toothpick holders with cowboy hats, and magnets shaped like the state. Wooden pop guns and cup-and-ball games, rice bowls, and tea sets were imported from Japan. Foot-long ropes of sour apple bubble gum, Japanese rice candy, cactus candy, and rock candy filled a shelf. Tourists would line up to climb wooden steps to the top of the tower to see all the flowers in bloom.
The business opened at 8 in the morning, although my dad was usually there earlier to check on the crops or meet workers who would be picking the flowers or vegetables. My mom split her time between home and the flower shop, picking us up after school and taking us to the shop when we were too young to be home alone. Large storage cabinets became nooks for taking a nap or reading a book when we were little. As we got older, the weekends and holidays were times for the whole family to pitch in. We learned to make bows out of ribbon, wire flowers for corsages and nosegays, and design holiday arrangements. We bagged the wedding bouquets and tagged flowers for delivery. The shop closed at 5, but during a busy holiday time like Valentine’s Day, we would be there until 10 or 11 at night, prepping for the next day. We would wait on customers, count out change, answer the phone, and take orders.
Just a few miles away, downtown Phoenix was becoming modern, with high-rise buildings, wide streets, and a new freeway, Interstate 10. Growth was spurred by new technology, air conditioning, and tourism. But throughout the 1960s and ’70s Baseline Road changed very little. Cars inched along the two lanes on weekends as drivers slowed and rolled down their windows to smell the flowers. Visitors would pull over to the side of the road, stand next to the fields, and take pictures. “Regulars” returned every year to buy their vegetable and flowering kale seeds from the different stands. The local newspaper ran a photo every March depicting children of the farming families standing in the fields to proclaim: “Spring is here!”
All of the flower garden families exchanged tips and helped each other out, sharing equipment and sometimes bartering for items they needed. The farms also created relationships between the Japanese-American families and the Mexican-American and Yaqui Indian families in the nearby township of Guadalupe. Some of the Guadalupe residents picked and bunched flowers or sold vegetables and flowers at the sheds. The farms could not have survived without their labor and support.
The Japanese-American farmers slowly sold their land as children chose to go off to college rather than stay and work the fields. But they were good stewards of the land, preserving a part of Phoenix from developing too quickly and creating a landmark in a city struggling to find an identity. Fittingly, the last family to stop farming flowers was also the first to do so, the Kishiyamas. In 2016, a small monument to the flower gardens and the legacy that the Kishiyamas started will be installed on a corner of the land where their flower stand once stood.
Baseline Road today is a four-lane highway, with apartment buildings, housing developments, and shopping centers where farms used to be. My family’s flower shop remains, but the fields were sold to a home developer in 2005—by that time, most of the children of the flower farmers, including me, were grown and had left to pursue their own careers. It’s now more cost-effective to buy flowers than grow them. But my 92-year-old dad still opens the doors of the shop each day to sell carnations, roses, sunflowers, mums, orchids, and other varieties that are shipped in from California and South America. The pagoda tower was destroyed in a fire years ago, but a photo of what the shop used to look like hangs on a wall.
Many customers at the shop today don’t know the history of the Japanese-Americans in south Phoenix, but every once in a while someone will stop in to reminisce and share a memory of the gardens and the farmers who turned rocks and dirt into a destination spot. In Japanese, we call this feeling natsukashi—“sweet memories.”
is an associate professor in Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University and a native Arizonan.
Primary editor: Siobhan Phillips. Secondary editor: Jia-Rui Cook.
*Photos courtesy of Kathy Nakagawa.